Reflections on the Centenary of the Government of Ireland Act
Speech10 December 2020
Reflections on the Centenary of the Government of Ireland Act
Queens University Belfast
10 December 2020
I welcome very much this opportunity to reflect, together with Brandon and Arlene and Michelle and this panel of eminent historians, on the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act.
History does not come with neat beginnings and endings, but the passage of this Act in 1920, through which the Westminster Parliament gave its approval and legal underpinning to partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland, is clearly a landmark moment in the history of this island, and these islands.
2021 will, I know, see a range of different events to mark that centenary in different ways. And, in light of the different perspectives that people will bring, I think that is a positive thing.
Let us acknowledge our common history and deepen our shared understanding of it.
Let us respect the diversity of our memories and perspectives.
And let us use that deeper understanding and respect to strengthen further the relationships of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, we have to acknowledge that this will not be simple or straightforward.
The expert group that advises us as a Government captured this very well when they recalled the need to speak to the experience of three particular communities:
“the unionist community, their identification with Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and their pride in its existence and achievements …
the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and the serious alienation they experienced over 50 years under the Parliament established in 1921….
and the Southern Unionist tradition, whose way of life, culture and political aspirations were forever impacted by partition”.
So I want to recognise at the outset that for many, the centenary is an opportunity to reflect with pride on the existence and achievements of Northern Ireland and the people who live here. It is, for many, a story of resilience and achievement.
I also want to recognise that, for the nationalist community, this is a story of disappointment and loss and tragedy, and a sustained and lived experience of discrimination and alienation over many years.
And I recognise that, for others again, particularly in the minority communities in the southern Border counties, the story is also one of being parted unwillingly from their kith and kin.
And for many, including for me, reflecting on the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act is to reflect on separation and sundered relationships on this island, and also a sense of a missed opportunity in history. It was unfortunately an Act, which in the words of UCC historian JJ Lee, ‘reflected British more than Irish political realties in 1920.’
Perhaps we can all reflect on whether another path could have been found if only the creativity and imagination shown by political and civic leaders in London, Dublin and Belfast in 1998 had been demonstrated by their predecessors in 1920.
We will never know.
However, we do know that, like all too much of our history, there was too much violence, and loss. There was mistrust, and misunderstanding, and, too often a lack of generosity towards the other.
Over the last century, in both our traditions, there were times that we set out principles and aspirations that were honourable and generous and inclusive.
And there were times, in both our traditions, when we fell far short of that. When we spoke of our politics and our desires for the future in terms of victory and defeat. Or ‘them and us’.
And of course, at our lowest point, we experienced what Seamus Heaney described as the “quarter century of life-waste and spirit- waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities” that was the Troubles.
It is important that we recognise those losses, and each acknowledge our own failures.
For our part, we are remembering a period – between the census of 1911 and that of 1926 - when the southern Protestant population declined markedly. There were undoubtedly complex political, social and economic factors to that, but they included feelings and instances of physical and economic insecurity in the new state.
The next few years are an opportunity to deepen our public understanding of that part of our history.
It is also important that we mark the successes and the achievements of people from all traditions during the last century of our shared history.
And I believe our greatest achievements are the ones we share.
22 years ago, we came together and imagined a better way. The Good Friday Agreement was one of history’s genuine new beginnings.
It transformed the landscape of conflict, and lit a beacon of hope and possibility that shone, and still shines, around the world.
Approved by the people of this island, North and South, the Agreement is both an expression of self-determination and a firm basis for peace, progress and reconciliation in a way that the Government of Ireland Act could never be.
As we have worked in the generation that has followed the Good Friday Agreement, to realise its full possibilities, it has again been a shared endeavour and achievement, of the Irish and British Governments and the political representatives of all the people of Northern Ireland.
In 2007, at the time of the St Andrews Agreement, that spirit of hope was captured by Ian Paisley when he said, “we have seen the first sign of a new light, and I hope that this light shines not just on those in this room but on our children and grandchildren”.
The children and the grandchildren of the Troubles generation, and the Good Friday Agreement generation, now hold that future in their hands.
That is the spirit that informs the Shared Island initiative of the Government, as the Taoiseach set out recently.
This is our commitment to redouble our efforts to build connections and trust; to work together to face major strategic challenges; to develop our shared island economy, and invest for the benefit of our border regions.
It is a broad, positive, practical agenda, ambitiously resourced and firmly rooted in the Good Friday Agreement.
That initiative is about the future, while today is about our history. But, as we all know, it can be hard to separate the two.
What we owe to rising generations is to consider our past in a way that is not about the rehearsing of old and bitter arguments.
But nor should we forget our history.
I was struck by a story told in Deirdre Nuttall’s recent oral history of the Protestant community in the new state, which my Department was proud to support. A man called Thomas from the border spoke of his uncle who “was in ‘the forces’”.
Afterwards, he hid his ammunition by burying it underneath an apple tree. Gradually, the lead from the ammunition leached into the soil and killed the tree; its steady decline was a constant reminder of the secret underneath it. The corresponding rifle stayed in the attic of the old family home until the 1990s.”
This is our history. This is our shared home place. We should not have secrets kept in the attic, or buried in the earth.
None of us should fear to speak. But, more importantly, we should also show the courage to listen.
I want to continue to hear the stories of those who struggled for Irish independence, and of those who struggled against it - for the Union and for the creation of Northern Ireland. There was pride in those struggles, no doubt, but pain too and regret and loss.
I want to hear the stories of the toll of that conflict. The loss of lives and homes and livelihoods.
I want to hear the experiences of the minority communities on both sides of the border. And the stories we don’t hear enough in any of our traditions – above all, the stories of women.
And I want to hear the stories of those who never felt their defining identity to be either nationalist or unionist, protestant or catholic, or even British or Irish, but who were an integral and shaping part of our shared history.
We should not be afraid of complexity, or contradiction.
It will be up to people like our historians gathered here today - such as Fearghal, Mary and Paul - to draw out these themes and inform our discussions with research and analysis and understanding. No easy task.
And as for political leaders, well our task and our responsibility - as President Higgins said last week in the first of his Centenary Reflections– is “to ensure a hospitality for all those narratives” and to provide a comprehensive, ethical framework within which memory, history and forgiveness can be accommodated. His initiative, launched in recent days and entitled Machnamh 100, sets out to do just that. I commend it highly.
Just because we ourselves do not celebrate an event in history, does not mean we cannot give the room and respect to others for whom it is important.
Just because we do not share the experience of loss of another tradition, does not mean we cannot give the space and sympathy for those who feel it.
It is indeed incumbent on us to ensure a hospitality for all those narratives. We lose nothing – not our beliefs, nor our sense of identity, nor our narratives - by doing so.
It is perhaps appropriate to take inspiration once more from the words of John Hume, as we have done so often in our search for a different path, away from conflict and division. He said:
I have seen the friendship of Irish and British people transcend, even in times of misunderstanding and tensions, all narrower political differences. We are two neighbouring islands whose destiny is to live in friendship and amity with each other…
I have seen a determination for peace become a shared bond that has brought together people of all political persuasions in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland.
If any of us reach the end of next year without having given a respectful hearing to a story or perspective from someone else’s tradition, then I believe we will have fallen short.
Because the island we live in now is one that we have all - drawing on all of our stories - helped imagine. Together.
And it is together, as President Higgins reminded us, that we should “strive to nurture memory and remembrance as a strong foundation of a shared, agreed future”.